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Daniel Wu - The Newest Heavenly King

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Although many Hong Kong actors are known for being hard working and flexible, appearing in countless films and jumping between genres at will, few can claim to have put in quite as much effort as Daniel Wu. From his debut back in 1998, his star has rapidly risen as he worked his way up to become one of the industry's most popular leading men - no mean feat, given that Wu is American-born, and not a native Cantonese speaker. Despite being labeled by some as nothing more than a glowering pretty boy for much of his career, he has slowly but surely collected a respectable number of acting awards, as well as extending his talents behind the camera. This success has allowed Wu to make increasingly interesting film choices in recent years, marking him as a performer who genuinely cares about widening his repertoire as he switches between mainstream and more art house productions - with no small thanks to Jackie Chan and director Derek Yee, both of whom have provided the actor with some of his finest moments.

From Berkeley to Hong Kong

Daniel Yin Cho Wu was born September 1974 in Berkeley, California, to parents who had immigrated to the US from Shanghai. Seeing Jet Li in the martial arts classic The Shaolin Temple made a big impression on the young Wu, and he grew up idolizing Jackie Chan and studied wushu from the age of 11. While majoring in architecture at the University of Oregon, he actually founded the university's wushu club, as well as taking on the role of coach. At the same time, Wu began to take a real interest in cinema and acting, attending film classes and developing an admiration for the works of directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Luc Besson.

Wu's film career began almost by accident, when in 1997 he headed for Hong Kong to experience the handover back to China. While there, he took his sister's advice and tried his hand at modeling, appearing in a number of clothing advertisements that were plastered across the city. One caught the eye of director Yonfan, who decided to cast the photogenic young man in his upcoming film, the offbeat homosexual love story Bishonen. Although Wu accepted the role, there was one problem standing in his way - namely, the fact that he couldn't speak Cantonese. Showing great determination, he persevered and learned his lines phonetically, turning in a creditable performance alongside Stephen Fung and Shu Qi.

The film successfully announced his arrival as an actor, and soon after he was cast in City of Glass, from writer director team Alex Law and Mabel Cheung, a tragic romance in which he played the son of Leon Lai, investigating his father's affair with Shu Qi whilst falling in love with her daughter, Nicola Cheung. As well as allowing him to speak English, the role won Wu his first Hong Kong Award nomination, for Best New Actor, with the film itself garnering an impressive 12 nominations.

Gen-X Breakthrough

Now with his foot firmly in the door, Wu found himself in increasing demand, making an appearance in the popular triad series entry Young and Dangerous: The Prequel for future Infernal Affairs helmer Andrew Lau. Finally, the actor had the chance to meet the legendary Jackie Chan, whose agent Willie Chan signed him to the superstar's group, leading to a cameo appearance in Gorgeous, and a role in the Benny Chan directed blockbuster Gen-X Cops in 1999. The film was an all star, youth oriented action comedy in which he played a gang leader who comes up against Nicholas Tse, Stephen Fung and Sam Lee's titular police officers. Although silly, the film was suitably spectacular, winning a Hong Kong Award nomination for Best Action Choreography, and made the most of Jackie Chan's cameo appearance and presence as executive producer. Chan was obviously impressed with Wu, and the two went on to work together on many occasions in the future.

Proving that he could handle action led Wu to a series of parts in big budget thrillers, beginning with Purple Storm, for director Teddy Chen, who would go on to the likes of Bodyguards and Assassins. The film had a rather convoluted plot, with Wu playing the son of a Khmer Rouge who is struck by amnesia and sent back to unknowingly bring down his father as an undercover double agent, though it benefited from a tough edge and impressive action scenes. The headline role was Wu's first and saw him managing to carry the film well, playing alongside the likes of Patrick Tam, Emil Chow, Joan Chen, and Josie Ho. It proved popular with both audiences and critics, winning a slew of Hong Kong Film Awards, and set Wu up nicely for his next action appearance, in Gordon Chan's 2000 A.D., a hi-tech computer virus thriller in which he served as sidekick to protagonist Aaron Kwok. Despite being a little bland, the film was nevertheless a hit, with veteran actor Francis Ng effectively stealing the show and winning himself several awards in the process. Wu followed it with Undercover Blues for director Billy Chung, a more standard affair in which he starred as a missing undercover cop who may or may not have gone rogue.

Actor on a Mission

As with most Hong Kong actors, now that Wu was a bona fide success, his work rate increased exponentially. 2001 was an incredibly busy year for the actor, and saw him take on a variety of roles in a real mix of genres. These ranged from the press themed drama Headlines, which reunited him with Emil Chow, to Dante Lam's brotherhood cop thriller Hit Team, and the more ponderous art house productions Born Wild and Peony Pavilion. The same year also gave him the chance to work again with Shu Qi and director Mabel Cheung on Beijing Rocks, a film which mixed an exploration of the Beijing underground rock scene with a quirky love triangle to surprisingly moving effect. Another noteworthy 2001 production was Cop on a Mission, a thriller directed by Marco Mak, for which he and co-star Suki Kwan both received much criticism from the Hong Kong media for their sexy scenes - a reaction which apparently greatly influenced the actor in his future choice of roles.

If 2001 was a year of genre hopping, then 2002 was when Wu truly proved himself to be Mr. Versatile, as he switched between the different ends of the cinematic spectrum, possibly in an attempt to defy some critics who had accused him of having limited range. Most prominent of his films that year was undoubtedly Love Undercover from Joe Ma, in which he was partnered with Miriam Yeung. The slight plot sees Yeung as a cop improbably assigned to go undercover and tail Wu's suspected triad, who ends up falling for her instead. A light and fluffy piece of commercial film making, the film was a massive box office hit, and although essentially Yeung's film, with Wu playing it straight and leaving most of the comedy to the supporting cast, it helped further his image as a potential leading man. In 2002 Wu appeared in comedy of a different sort in Beauty and the Breast, a film which focused on the subject of a breast size increasing cream. Amusing enough in a scattershot manner, the film is best remembered (or perhaps forgotten) for its scenes of Wu and co-star Francis Ng sporting large, disturbing looking man-breasts.

Wu changed pace with Sylvia Chang's oddball, ambitious drama Princess D, in which he played a lost and angst ridden computer programmer who becomes infatuated with Angelica Lee's bargirl, taking her not only as a model for his latest game, but as an angel of sorts. The film boasted an impressive cast, which also included Edison Chen and Anthony Wong (who won Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Horse Awards for his efforts), and though never quite hanging together, it did at least try something different.

Balancing such thoughtful fare, Wu finished off a hectic year by appearing in several trashier outings, such as Billy Chung's sleazy noir Devil Face Angel Heart, which was somewhat of a Gen-X Cops reunion given that it also featured Stephen Fung and Sam Lee, along with Gigi Lai. Seedier still was Marco Mak's excellently titled The Peeping, based upon the real life scandal surrounding a Taiwanese politician, and the Ching Siu Tung-directed, Wong Jing-produced exploitation classic Naked Weapon - none of which, it has to be said, did much for his drive to be taken more seriously as a thespian, mostly revolving around him looking intense and losing his shirt.

Film Production and Film Awards

Wu showed more ambition in 2003, as he stepped behind the cameras for the first time, co-producing, not to mention working on the funding for Julian Lee's Night Corridor. Wu also headlined the psycho-drama as a troubled photographer who returns to Hong Kong to investigate the death of his twin brother and uncovers all kind of bizarre and unpleasant secrets about his past. Dealing with themes of child abuse, homosexuality, devilry and killer monkeys, the film was very much an art house affair, and though not particularly successful or indeed coherent, it did earn some festival play, and marked a genuine attempt by Wu to take on more meaty and difficult roles, and he was duly nominated for Best Actor at the Golden Horse Awards.

More production work followed in 2003 as he served as creative director for the MTV Asia program Whatever Things, and also participated in a theatre production of The Happy Prince at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, during which he bravely tackled an extended monologue in Cantonese. Of course, at the same time Wu continued in his quest to climb up the Hong Kong A-list, appearing in hit sequel Love Undercover 2: Love Mission, which paired him again with Miriam Yeung, with familiar, though not unpleasant results, the hip urban, Jay Chou themed meandering romance Hidden Track, and the historical play adaptation Miss Du Shi Niang.

2004 was certainly a banner year for Wu's career, with no less than three roles in Jackie Chan related productions, namely New Police Story, The Twins Effect II, and his latest stab at conquering Hollywood, Around the World in 80 Days. Whilst the latter two only really offered cameo roles, New Police Story was a more prestigious affair, marking Chan's return to Hong Kong after years in the Western doldrums and featuring an exciting young cast that included Nicholas Tse, Charlene Choi, Terence Yin, Andy On, Charlie Young and a host of EEG and pop personalities. Aiming for the tried and tested Gen-X Cops formula of spicing up a police thriller plot with lots of stunts and extreme sports related shenanigans, the film had plenty of fun moments and proved popular with audiences at home and abroad. Wu turned in an impressive performance as the film's villain, effectively mixing angst and cop-taunting arrogance, and winning himself Best Supporting Actor at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards.

Another award, this time for Best Actor, also arrived in 2004 for what was Wu's best role to date, and arguably his best since, in Derek Yee's superb gritty urban noir One Nite in Mongkok. The film cast Wu as an inexperienced hitman from Mainland China, who comes to Hong Kong to carry out an assassination, and falls in with a prostitute, convincingly played by Cecilia Cheung, while being hunted by Alex Fong's cop and various gangsters. Shot in believably grimy detail, the character driven film is an alternately tense and tragic affair that stood head and shoulders above other similarly themed efforts, and gave the genre a much needed shot in the arm.

2004 wasn't all about playing dark and gloomy types, and Wu continued to show up in broader comedies, such as the Sammi Cheng Lunar New Year vehicle Magic Kitchen, and Stephen Fung's wacky slice of gay triad slapstick Enter the Phoenix. In the same year, although Gillian Chung got most of the attention for Beyond Our Ken, given that it gave her a chance to shed her pop pixie image, Pang Ho Cheung's dark relationship comedy also offered Wu a chance to bring a touch of humanity to a fairly loathsome role as a cheating scoundrel of a boyfriend.

Heavenly King

By now, Wu was comfortably assured of Hong Kong leading man status, which he certainly didn't harm by starring in a series of popular hits in 2005 such as Derek Yee's light hearted booze comedy Drink-Drank-Drunk, in which he and Miriam Yeung attempted, albeit with only moderate success, to re-create their Love Undercover chemistry. Another pair of commercial hits followed with the ensemble kung fu comedy House of Fury and the Benny Chan thriller Divergence, which saw Wu in a convincing turn as a cold but strangely moral killer. Interestingly enough, the film was written by Ivy Ho, better known for rich character pieces such as July Rhapsody and the classic Comrades, Almost a Love Story.

More ambitious, though perhaps less successful was Everlasting Regret, a film which generated a great deal of interest for being seen as acclaimed director Stanley Kwan's follow up to his much praised Centre Stage, not to mention romantic comedy queen Sammi Cheng's attempt to transform herself into a more serious actress. Unfortunately, the historical Shanghai set drama received mixed reviews from critics, with Wu playing one of Cheng's lovers but having his voice dubbed into Mandarin.

After cameoing in McDull, The Alumni and Jackie Chan's Rob-B-Hood, Wu had another blockbuster role in popular Mainland director Feng Xiaogang's Shakespearian costume epic The Banquet. The film was an all star affair, with Wu playing a moody prince alongside Zhang Ziyi's empress, the scheming Ge You and the always gorgeous Zhou Xun. Despite boasting handsome production values and martial arts choreography from the legendary Yuen Woo Ping, the film didn't go down too well with some critics, probably as a result of having been quite obviously made for the international markets and with one eye on winning an Oscar.

Intriguingly, in 2005 and 2006, there were reports in the media that along with Terence Yin, Andrew Lin, and Conroy Chan, Wu had put together a boy band pop group called Alive. This certainly seemed to have some credence, with the band providing updates and music via their website, often making controversial or rather odd statements. Eventually, the truth came out, that Alive had actually been manufactured solely for the purpose of a mockumentary called The Heavenly Kings, which Wu co produced and directed along with his other three band mates. The film itself was a clever and frequently hilarious deconstruction of the Hong Kong music industry, with Wu playing things quite personal and close to the bone, also making fun of himself in the process. Although it annoyed some in the media who had been duped into taking Alive at face value, the film was a big critical success, winning him the Best New Director award at the 26th Hong Kong Film Awards. More importantly, the film proved that Wu had talents behind the camera, showing both technical skills and an intelligent sense of humor.

2007 had Wu starring in a trio of interesting films, including the controversial Protege for Derek Yee, a drugs themed drama headlined by Hong Kong megastar Andy Lau, and also notable for featuring a rare appearance by Anita Yuen. Yee proved again that he is the director who knows how to get the best out of Wu, casting him as an undercover cop who has become a little too close to Lau's kingpin during the years in his service.

Wu kept his guns blazing in the same year in music video director Alexi Tan's Blood Brothers, a 1930s Shanghai gangster tale that had a couple of illustrious producers in John Woo and Terence Chang, and a stellar cast that included Shu Qi, Sun Honglei, Tony Yang, Liu Ye, and Chang Chen. Sadly, despite some gorgeous and opulent visuals and a potentially powerful plot that reworked Woo's seminal Bullet in the Head, the film was a definite disappointment. More entertaining, though utterly mystifying was Ming Ming, which saw Wu working with another music video director in Susie Au. A truly bizarre mix of over the top MTV style visuals and cryptic emotions, though confusing in the extreme, the film still worked well enough and managed some awesome moments amongst all the existential angst.

More Derek Yee and Jackie Chan

After a quiet 2008, Wu returned for a busy 2009, unsurprisingly reteaming one more time with director Derek Yee for Jackie Chan's latest comeback film, Shinjuku Incident, an ambitious attempt to give the kung fu king a more morally ambiguous role playing an immigrant in Japan involved in gangland activity. Despite Chan taking all the headlines, it was arguably Wu who turned in the better, or at least the more entertaining performance, going through some of the film's tougher moments and eventually having to dress up in glam makeup and a bizarre shock wig.

A somewhat more straightforward part was next in the thriller Overheard from Alan Mak, one half of the Infernal Affairs directing team. Dealing with themes of surveillance and corrupt cops, the film managed to survive being blatantly tailored for the strictly regulated Mainland market to deliver the requisite glossy excitement, and gave Wu yet another high profile role, this time alongside Lau Ching Wan, Alex Fong, Louis Koo and the ever reliable over acting of Michael Wong.

In the same year, Wu produced and starred in Like a Dream, which marked the return of Australia based director Clara Law. The film was an offbeat affair, blurring the lines between visions and reality as it followed an unlikely relationship that develops between Wu and Mainland actress and singer Yolanda Yuan Quan, who he travels to Shanghai to meet after seeing her in a dream. As well as having the honor of being the opening film of the 2010 Hong Kong International Film Festival, the film also won a slew of nominations at the 2009 Golden Horse Awards, including Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress, and Best Original Screenplay.

Most recently, Wu showed up in the ensemble romantic comedy Hot Summer Days, notable for being the first film made by the iconic Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox for the Chinese film market. Although essentially a piece of fluff, the film featured impressive production values, along with a string of familiar faces such as Jacky Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Barbie Hsu, and many others. Probably more exciting for fans was Triple Tap, a thematic follow up to the 2000 Leslie Cheung starring cult hit Double Tap, in which director Derek Yee had Wu as a cool police detective and sharpshooter facing off against Louis Koo as a possibly crazy investment banker who also happens to be handy with a firearm. A mix of psychological character drama and thrilling shootouts, the film kept Wu in the limelight in yet another leading man role and continued his successful relationship with Yee.

Where Wu goes from here is very much in his own hands, with the actor having little left to prove, though it's a fair bet that further films with Derek Yee and probably with Jackie Chan will be on the horizon, along with his usual mix of commercial and offbeat projects.

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Published October 30, 2010

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